By Homa Khaleeli
5 June 2013
"I don't really want to go out now," Rizwan Ali says anxiously. "If I needed something I used to just go to the shops, but I've been staying in." On 24 May the father of four had been to Friday prayers at his local mosque. On his way home he popped into Pound Stretcher to look at gardening equipment. As he browsed he noticed another customer staring at him.
"He was looking at me, as though I had done something," Ali (not his real name), explains. "Then he started shouting: 'You are a Muslim, you are a soldier killer.' I was shocked and scared. It was very upsetting. I moved to the front of the shop, but he kept following me."
Since the brutal murder of drummer Lee Rigby earlier this month, campaigners say that such anti-Muslim incidents have been repeated across the country. Monitoring groups have recorded the targeting of 11 mosques, while women wearing Hijab have complained about being spat at, or having their headscarves pulled off. This week, a community centre and mosque was destroyed in a fire and police are investigating whether it was firebombed, after reports that fire crews saw the letters EDL scrawled on the side of the building. Online, activists say there have been shocking levels of vitriol unleashed. But the attacks have also revitalised the argument over whether Islamophobia, and the targeting of Muslims, is being overstated. The Metropolitan police's head of counter-terrorism, Cressida Dick, calls the wave of attacks "horrible" and agrees there has been an increase, but says "compared to previous times we have had slightly less".
Yet monitoring groups and campaigners point out that hate crime is often under-reported, with Muslims in particular reluctant to contact the police for fear they won't be taken seriously. Some campaigners point out confidence in the police may also be low in the wake of counter-terrorism strategies such as Prevent. And they say harassment that is not violent, such as verbal abuse or spitting, can still spread fear and make communities feel under siege.
For the imam of Grimsby mosque the answer to whether Islamophobia is a problem, is clear. Dr Ahmad M Sabik says his mosque has always had a good relationship with its neighbours, pointing to regular schools visits and an active interfaith network. But days after the Woolwich killing, bricks were hurled through the window, narrowly avoiding worshippers. A group of teenagers were arrested and the community shrugged off the incident. But three days later things became more serious.
"It was about 10pm and one of the brothers was leaving," Sabik recalls. "Just as he was opening the door fire was thrown at it. We realised it was a petrol bomb. Another one had been thrown at the fire exit – can you imagine? And there was a third that they had tried to throw on the roof. There were children inside. Everyone was frightened."
Two ex-soldiers have since appeared in court, charged with arson with intent to endanger life, but Sabik worries that such incidents are not being taken seriously enough. "What happened in London was nothing to do with Islam, and what happened in Grimsby was nothing to do with British culture – but both are terrorist acts."
Fiyaz Mughal, director of conflict resolution charity Faith Matters, says many Muslims feel the same. The organisation runs the Tell Mama project, mapping Islamophobic incidents around the country. The idea for Tell Mama (the acronym stands for Measuring Anti Muslim Attacks) was sparked by the government's desire for more information – and a growing perception among British Muslims that Islamophobia was underestimated.
After the Woolwich killing was linked to Islamist extremism, the number of incidents the project recorded skyrocketed from an average of about eight a day to 221. Mughal says their numbers are higher because people do not always report cases to the police, and Tell Mama records Islamophobic incidents as well as crimes. The figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which is more cautious, also recorded a spike in incidents – with 71 hate crimes or incidents reported between 22-27 May, compared with 27 reports of anti-Muslim activity in the seven days before the killing. The police's online reporting facility for hate crimes, True Vision, had 136 complaints, including physical offences and internet material (but say some of these may be duplicates). The Metropolitan police force, meanwhile, says it has had eight reports of potentially Islamophobic crime each day in London since the Woolwich murder compared to an average of one a day in the past 12 months.
The police says it takes such crimes seriously, with Sir Peter Fahy from ACPO saying there had been: "enhanced monitoring of local tensions … enhanced patrols and high-visibility police presence at vulnerable locations … and proactive investigations of any incidents reported, including hate crimes". The Met, meanwhile, insists: "We want communities to have the confidence to come forward and report hate crime when it happens. Hate crime is not ignored – we will take positive action, we will investigate, we will support victims and we will work hard to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice."
But Leon Moosavi, a sociologist at the University of Liverpool who specialises in Islamophobia, says problems remain: "A lot of people think Islamophobia is exaggerated but actually minorities generally under-report. Someone might be called a Paki or a terrorist but most people won't even tell anyone."
Not everyone is convinced, however. Last weekend Andrew Gilligan took Tell Mama to task, accusing it of exaggerating the problem. He pointed out that only a small proportion of the incidents it had recorded involved physical violence against an individual: many were online attacks, or at the "lower end of seriousness", and that while the "Islamophobia industry" says the problem is getting worse, it has actually calmed down.
In the light, airy London offices of the project, Tell Mama's young workers say the criticisms are unjustified. While the spike seemed to be short-lived (Tuesday saw only six incidents reported), the attacks created a real atmosphere of anxiety in communities around the country, which cannot be quickly forgotten, they say. The organisation fielded calls from Hijab-wearing women who were scared to go out, while those who had experienced "low-level" harassment, such as Ali, were often deeply affected.
Case worker Amani El Sehrawry flicks through some recent reports to show me what the project is dealing with: a woman has emailed to flag up the verbal abuse of Muslim stallholders in Brixton market; a man has sent in a screenshot of an EDL member posing with a gun and tweeting about how he will exact a "violent revenge" against Muslims; a woman has rung in extremely distressed because dog excrement has been smeared on her house.
Meanwhile the 11 confirmed attacks on mosques, says Mughal – which include graffiti, arson, and even bacon being left outside – could have a huge impact on how safe Muslims feel. "When a mosque is attacked, it may be an attack on an institution not an individual," he says, "but it affects hundreds of people, and leads to the perception within the community that their identity is under siege. I think if it was 10 churches or 10 synagogues attacked there would not be this undermining of our work."
Abuse on social media should not be underestimated either, he insists, pointing out it can lead to offline attacks. "When we started the project we would pick up social media chatter by far-right groups saying, 'We should go and put a pig's head, or pig's trotters, outside a mosque,' but we had not had anything like that reported.
"But in the past few months we have seen eight of these incidents – a shift from talking about it online to doing it in real life."
El Sehrawry says she had to phone the police several times last week to report direct threats, something she has not had to do in the project's 14-month lifespan. "We have had people online using someone's name directly and saying 'why not stab them?'. There have been people saying we need a repeat of the Norway massacre to make a statement. It's really disgusting."
Moosavi too, believes that monitoring online Islamophobia is important. "It causes great injury and can inspire real-life hatred and discrimination:
"Online Islamophobia reflects more hidden attitudes than those that circulate in society."
And while he thinks Muslims may fear Islamophobia more then they should, dismissing hate crimes against any groups, is counterproductive, he believes. "There is a strong movement of those who strongly dislike Islam dismissing Islamophobia, and that is a shame because their dislike of Islam prevents them from realising that Muslims are often discriminated against because of their faith.
"The same attitude is still taken towards anti-Semitism and racism more generally. Academic research is entirely certain that Islam and Muslims are often perceived in negative terms and this should not be dismissed as irrelevant if we want to be a society based on fairness and equality."
For Moosavi the resurgence of the EDL is particularly worrying, as they stoke up hatred against Muslims. "A few weeks ago a lot of experts would have said the EDL were at their weakest," he says. "They had a march in Manchester and there were less than 100 people. But after the [Woolwich] attack more than a thousand people came to their demonstration in Newcastle.
"The EDL's main rallying point is Islam. They may say they are not against all Muslims, but the stereotypes they use suggest otherwise."
Yet the picture is far from unremittingly bleak. EDL protesters last weekend were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators, while politicians' (including David Cameron and Nick Clegg) condemnation of far-right violence and attacks on Muslims has been impressive, Moosavi says.
"There's a level of maturity in the recognition that Muslims and terrorism are not the same thing, which I hope means we are on the way to a more moderate conversation."
Others are even more hopeful that the attacks might have unexpected consequences. Shabir Subar is the director of the Zainabiya Islamic Centre in Milton Keynes. A day after the killing of Lee Rigby a petrol bomb was thrown on to the roof of the centre, as worshippers left for the night. On the Friday following the murder, a woman driving to the mosque was chased, verbally abused and had rubbish thrown at her car, Subar recounts. Yet, he insists, the murder and subsequent attacks have sparked an important change in community responses.
"It has made Muslims, who may have kept quiet in the past, speak out against terrorism and dissociate ourselves from such attacks – these men don't belong to Islam and Islam doesn't belong to them.
"In the past Muslims just wanted to keep their heads down, but we realised we have to stand up and be counted."
At the same time the outpouring from the wider community has been "humbling", he says. "The response has been overwhelming. It's been really reassuring to the community that we are not all being tarred with the same brush as these mindless thugs."
In Grimsby, Ahmed Sabik feels the same. "I am hopeful that Muslims won't feel less welcome in the UK, but instead it will encourage us to build more relations with others. I think now people are more receptive to hearing about our religion so this could be a positive turning point. A huge number of people have sent cards or emails. People have been saying 'we support you' and 'these crimes don't represent us' and 'you are welcome here'. We were so happy because it shows we are all united against these people who wanted to destroy our harmony."
Yet groups set up to monitor Islamophobia say more needs to be done. Shenaz Bunglawalla, from the group iEngage, which encourages media awareness and political participation among British Muslims, says that to ensure official recognition of the problem, accurate figures are essential. They want anti-Muslim attacks recorded seperately, something the Met currently does, although elsewhere in the country such recording is patchy with many forces recording all such incidents under "religious hate crimes".
Mohammed Khaliel, who advises the Met and reported on Islamophobia for BBC Newsnight, says the force's latest comments would not help in the drive to encourage Muslims to come forward. "The issue is people are not reporting these crimes to the Metropolitan police force, they are reporting them to mosques or other places. I have had reports of four incidents myself [since Newsnight was aired on 30 May] of altercations, including one with a taxi driver and EDL supporters, where the driver said he feared it would become violent. People think the police won't do anything about it. Even if it is not violent, people do feel terrified by these incidents."
Forces in areas with the largest Jewish communities already dis-aggregate hate crime figures, according to the Community Security Trust, established to ensure the safety of the British Jewish community. Mark Gardener from the group points out that having accurate figures, and breaking them down, is an essential first step towards taking action and showing communities the police, politicians and civil servants are doing their utmost to tackle the problem.
ACPO says it is something forces are working on. "Driving up reporting is absolutely vital in helping us to reach those affected by hate crimes," says its hate crime spokesman, Paul Giannasi. "Local forces are already recording different forms of hate crime, including those which target Muslims. Work is under way to ensure a more detailed breakdown of reported hate crimes is available, so that we have the most accurate picture possible of the nature and scale of the issues."